ISSS/ISAC Presentation: Failed States, Civil Militia, and State Deconstructive Violence

For whomever may be interested, here is a copy of the presentation which I gave today at the annual International Security Studies Section of ISA conference here in Montreal.

The presentation went well and I was fortunate to be on a panel with a number of other bright young scholars doing very interesting work. Nothing like a small professional conference to meet new people, shmooze, and network.

Please find the presentation after the jump. Feedback is greatly appreciated:

ISSS/ISAC Conference, Montreal, 19-20 October 2007

Panel 6B – Wars and Civil Wars

Failed States, Civil Militia, and State Deconstructive Violence

Ariel Zellman, M.A.


The objective of my paper is to challenge dominant understandings of the security role played by semi-autonomous militia groups in failed states facing insurgent violence. I make the argument that although militias are often quite effective in suppressing domestic disorder where regular military have failed, their successes do not necessarily translate into state control of restive areas. Rather than contributing to the state’s monopolization of the use of force, more often their employment enfeebles existing security institutions and further drains them of resources necessary to project sovereign power. In short, I argue that paramilitary employment is one of the surest ways a state can contribute to its own deconstruction and dissolution even as its intention is to accomplish precisely the opposite.

Failed states, characterized by their chronic inability to bring stability to their political structures while facing violent threats from internal challengers, are clearly more likely than their “functional” counterparts to turn to paramilitary solutions. In such an environment, there are clear incentives to turn to semi-autonomous militias to achieve state security objectives. Given that civil militia are almost always drawn from the same general population or geographic area from which rebel movements emerge, channeling state coercive force through paramilitary proxies may be seen as providing the state with an aura of local legitimacy. Moreover, by making it difficult to distinguish between rebels, paramilitaries, and armed criminals, governments can distance themselves from responsibility for atrocities committed by their proxies by attributing them to civilian “bandits” or the rebels themselves. Perhaps most important, however, is that the state can capitalize on militias’ own endogenous incentives to act on behalf of the state in order to capture local political and security control. Lacking the independent capability to conduct counterinsurgency campaigns, the state’s employment of such self-motivated actors can potentially decrease operational and central monitoring costs, signal to insurgent opponents the state’s determination to carry out the fight to the bloody finish, and provide the political center with seemingly dependable allies in securing the pacification of restive territories.

These incentives, however, are largely derived from the assumption that militia activities are driven exclusively by state objectives and have little or no feedback effects. According to this perspective, where paramilitaries conquer, the state achieves almost immediate predominance. One such example of this approach is Stathis Kalyvas’ otherwise quite convincing and nuanced study, The Logic of Violence in Civil War. In his analysis, strategies of state and rebel forces are largely determined by their degree of control over a particular territory vis-à-vis their primary rival leaving little space for conceptualizing the role of third party actors. However, while militia may be effective in carrying out state security objectives, their clearing of insurgent or sympathetic populations from a contested territory does not automatically translate to the expansion of Weberian sovereignty into this “empty” space. Indeed, this newly acquired territory may provide a base and popular constituency from which the militia itself may pursue its own objectives.

This potentiality also presents a poignant critique of Mary Kaldor’s “new wars” approach in which paramilitaries are seen largely as a symptom rather than as a contributing cause of state failure. Indeed, by subcontracting the coercive arm of the state to combat these threats, it concurrently diffuses and weakens its own exercise of sovereign control. This strategy clearly has far reaching consequences for the state security apparatus, in the most extreme examples breaking down government-accountable forces in favor of\ highly decentralized and largely deregulated security systems which directly empowers regional elites, local militia, and regime-sanctioned paramilitaries. Once traveling along this trajectory, it becomes increasingly costly to turn back generating a path dependent course which might be best characterized as chronic paramilitarism. Now reliant upon client militias, the state faces the stark choice of acquiescing to client interests even if these may be detrimental to the state or taking on new clients to combat the rise of the old. On either strategic path, the state’s capacity to exercise centralized control only grows weaker thereby increasing security dysfunction and heightening the likelihood of collapse absent external intervention.

Examples of such state degenerative behavior are hardly lacking. Indeed, variations on this model appear to have been or continue to be in operation in such diverse cases as Colombia, the DRC, Lebanon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan to name but a few.

The case of Colombia illustrates quite clearly that although paramilitary employment is more prevalent in non-democratic states, it is not limited to them. Nor does it appear that democracies are any less prone to the negative externalities of the subcontracting of sovereign coercion than their non-democratic counterparts. Case in point, the umbrella organization of right-wing paramilitaries which make up the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or the AUC have long been supported by the government as a means to combat the FARC and ELN insurgencies. As expected by the model developed here, the AUC’s pursuit of parochial interests even while battling rebel groups has allowed it to carve out its own zones of control over which the central state has little sovereign authority. In these largely autonomous zones, they have engaged in widespread narcotrafficking and organized criminality which rival the rebel movements they were funded and trained to combat. Even as significant international pressure has led to the gradual disarmament of the AUC’s “official” forces, new groups have emerged which are less centralized, less committed to the organization’s original counterinsurgency mission, and perhaps more free to engage in the illicit drug trade than their predecessors.

Lebanon is a similarly fertile case although it differs from the others cited here in that the government has been guilty of turning an actively blind eye to the activities of militia groups rather than directly employing them. Indeed, Lebanon may be unique in the region in that every interstate war in which the country has been involved over the past thirty years has been initiated by militia groups rather than by the state itself. Whether referring to the PLO in the 1980s or Hizballah in the 1990s to the present, the failure of the Lebanese government to exercise sovereign control over the totality of its territory has allowed semi-sovereign mini-states to rise which have degraded the administrative, popular, and sovereign legitimacy of the Lebanese state, forced it into unwanted military conflict, and held it hostage to these actors’ particular interests. While the deployment of Lebanese military forces coupled with UN observers in the South following the war between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006 and last summer’s three and a half month conflict in Nahr el-Bared refugee camp against the terrorist group Fatah al-Islam can be seen as the first courageous steps towards reasserting sovereign control, these moves can also be seen as foreshadowing significant domestic conflict yet to come as a consequence of the state’s decades of security neglect.

Of all the cases mentioned, Sudan is the most paradigmatic. Its chronic paramilitary employment both to supplement and replace regular security bodies in its civil war against the South very broadly defined and more recently in Darfur have significantly degraded the state’s capacity to implement any form of centralized coercion independent of these clients. By virtue of the size of the state, the distance of these conflicts from the capital, its enjoyment of significant foreign direct investment in its sizeable oil reserves, and its experience of continuous refugee flows, the government has been able to largely avoid the problems posed by client defection faced by other militia-reliant states. Rather than fall prey to their clients, the state has recruited new militia to replace those which defect from the state’s agenda. Indeed, what the Sudanese regime’s strategy quickly reveals is that stability of the political center is entirely dependent on fomenting chaos in its periphery. This also seems to imply that Sudan faces an even more fragile domestic security environment than other cases in that so much of its resources have been redirected from the political center. If faced with wholesale client defection, it is probable that Sudan would lack even the most limited capacities to retain sovereign control.

In short, when already dysfunctional states subcontract the exercise of coercion to paramilitary actors, not only does it become nearly impossible without external intervention to recapture this critical capacity but it may lay the groundwork for regime failure and state collapse.

This critique may also be profitably applied to instances of foreign military occupation. In particular, the maladies identified in the previous cases should give pause to those celebrating the apparent successes against al Qaeda forces achieved by the American military in cooperation with local militia in Anbar Province in Iraq. Clearly the United States is not a failed state, yet analogous to these contexts, it faces in Iraq threats to its control over the exercise of violence and suffers from a lack of strongly institutionalized means to address these threats. Assuming occupiers have relatively short strategic time horizons, limited social goals within the occupied territory, and face popular opposition to their long-term entrenchment, there are similarly strong incentives to employ militia forces. As in the failed state cases, militia actors are seen as having established ties to their constituents, broader local knowledge, and endogenous incentives to do the “dirty work” for the occupier.

Since the US military sees occupation as a transient arrangement, they may not have given proper consideration to the long-term impacts of this strategy. If militia employment helps to achieve the occupier’s more bounded security goals, the reality that centralized state control may not “fill the void” left in the campaign’s wake is clearly much more immediately problematic for the state than it is for the exiting occupier. Indeed, it is not difficult to predict how the security objectives of the Shi’ite dominated central Iraqi state might conflict with those of predominantly Sunni provinces which, after enjoying considerable external assistance, may effectively consolidate autonomous control of these regions. If Anbar is to be treated as the model by which security is to be reestablished in Iraq, it must also be recognized that without a significant reversal of dominant trends of sectarian violence, meticulous federal design, and an ultimate willingness of newly empowered regional security actors to subordinate themselves to national security institutions, it is also a model which is likely to encourage either perpetual state security dysfunction or sovereign territorial dissolution.

In either case, the overriding point remains that so long as the international order remains premised on the functioning and accountability of sovereign states, the international community must do all it can to prevent the implementation or persistence of security strategies which fundamentally threaten that order. While it may not be desirable to “save” governments of the likes of Sudan from their well deserved fates, as the current quagmire in Iraq may demonstrate, it may be preferable to reinforce the stability of tyrannical states which exercise relatively effective Weberian sovereignty. This may indeed be true if the alternative is to allow the disintegration of such states into violent, unpredictable cantons which maintain no semblance of domestic security, territorial control, or accountability for the forces operating within and originating from these spaces.

Given that neither policy option is particularly desirable, the most sensible alternative may be to provide considerable international assistance in order to rebuilding state capacity even while violent conflict on the ground is being monitored and constrained by external observer forces. Although this would often require a hugely significant investment of international attention and resources, neglecting to do so could come at the cost of continued violence and greater regional disorder should the regime in question fail to maintain a balance between central enforcement capacity and competing clients. If the world community truly does value the existence of stable state structures in the developing world, it must therefore be willing to address states with degenerative military strategies like chronic paramilitarism or risk their demise and the chaos they leave in their wake.

2 Responses to ISSS/ISAC Presentation: Failed States, Civil Militia, and State Deconstructive Violence

  1. Jorge Rave says:

    Hello Ariel,

    I was also at today’s conference but I didn’t get a chance to see your presentation. I presented my paper yesterday, on the securitization process of the Colombian crisis through Plan Colombia. I would really like to read the whole version of your paper, if there’s one.


    Jorge Rave, Université du Québec à Montreal.

  2. […] smoothly from my own work on failed state militia employment and deconstructive violence.  See my presentation at this year’s ISSS/ISAC conference for more detail.  Here my recent paper on federal […]

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